Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Saturday Night Fever (Badham. 1977)

"Some of these girls think when you make it with them it means you have to dance with them"

When we first meet Tony Manero he is strutting down the streets of a run-down Brooklyn area wearing perfectly shined shoes and an outfit that hit fashion standards for the time. The audience is treated to the ever pleasing sound of “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees as opening credits roll in simple bolded red lettering. At fist, it is just Tony’s feet we see walking to the beat of the music. I almost expected to see him holding a tape player or something in his hands. But as the camera moves up – you see that he is simply strutting. This is an important moment in understanding Tony’s motivations. He cannot hear the background score, but the music is still in his head. And it dominates his future desires.

Of course, Tony is played by the Oscar nominated John Travolta. His aforementioned strut has become engraved in the great American pop-culture lexicon along with his disco dancing. But to say that Saturday Night Fever is all about style and dancing would be irresponsibly disregarding what really makes the film great. In doing some individual research (by that I mean asking a number of my peers at a private university), I have found that most young people have no real idea what Saturday Night Fever is about. “Isn’t that the disco movie”? Is it okay to answer that with “kind of”?

Admittedly, I had no idea that this movie had any substance until I actually sat down and watched it for myself. I was excited to see Travolta in his classic white disco suit pointing his fingers to the sky to the sultry disco sound of the Gibb brothers (not); I wanted to see what the fuss was about. After seeing it, I decided that the film’s reputation has been damaged through iconic disco imagery.

Saturday Night Fever tells the story of an Italian-American teenager from Brooklyn who has a gift for dancing and a mouth that would offend Lenny Bruce. Tony lives at home with his unsupportive (abusive?) family, works at a dead-end hardware store and spends all of his money on Saturdays at a cruddy disco called 2001 Odyssey. He spends hours combing, gelling and blow-drying his hair. He spends even more time talking about it. At the dinner table, his father slaps the back of his head. This is a major crime in Tony’s eyes. He is nineteen years old and image is everything.

Unlike his rag-tag group of cronies who prowl the club for women, Tony spends his time on the dance floor impressing everyone with his elongated solo dance numbers to some now-classic disco beats. There is a woman in the club, Annette (Donna Pescow) who is practically throwing herself at him, but he is focused. His life outside of that club seems meaningless to him. Dancing is his outlet. It is what makes him feel important. And to the people in 2001, Tony IS important.

In a predictable turn of events, a dance contest is going to be held and Tony needs a partner. He initially agrees to dance with Annette under the condition that she doesn’t start to think they’re dating, but then dumps her for the new girl at the club, Stephanie. She is a dancer on the same level as Tony. I think that is his primary attraction. After creeping on her for a while, Tony gets her to agree to get some coffee.

The audience is (or maybe should be) immediately aware of Steph's bologna. She portrays herself as a classy girl who is looking to officially move across the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan. She has a bit a grandeur dilution over her typing job at a talent agency and fabricates stories over her interactions with famous people. Though it is hinted that Tony knows she is lying, he is immediately attracted to her because they share the same dreams. He also wants to cross that bridge. He has no business wasting his life in Brooklyn with his goofball friends. He, in his mind, deserves to dance.

For me, I see no appeal in Stephanie. She is harsh, mean and overly-judgmental of Tony and his life. She may have a job, but her position is not much “better” than Tony’s. But Tony is wide-eyed at her stories of living in the greatest city in the world. He wants to be a part of that and Steph’s grandeur pulls him into it. Tony has no idea how to act with women. He is still so young and inhabits a world where chicks seem to be a right and not a privilege. His mind astounds me at some points.

With the opening hour of Saturday Night Fever, the audience is treated to stylistic dancing, acting and filmmaking. The second hour? Tragedy. One of Tony’s friends, Bobby, has gotten a girl pregnant and has no idea what to do. She will not get an abortion, but he does not want to be married. Bobby seems to have less structure and support at home than even Tony. With nobody to talk to and a huge decision looming over him, Bobby makes a drastic move with which Tony may have contributed.

Annette is heartbroken at Tony’s refusal to love her. High and drunk she agrees to sleep with two of Tony’s buddies in the back of the car while he sits in the front seat. She wants to make him jealous. About halfway through the first guy, her high fades and she no longer wants to go through with it. She is then raped.

And Tony does not get out of this unscathed. He makes a huge error in judgement and loses Stephanie as a possible romantic interest. But in these tragedies he learns that it is time to move on. Tony grows in the movie and learns something by the end. It is not about dancing anymore; it is about living life, escaping mediocrity and being something better. How deep is your love? How "deep" is Saturday Night Fever? Much deeper than disco....

Saturday Night Fever: B+

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